A person with perfect posture is very rare. Over our lifetime, it’s much easier to develop a misalignment of some kind, without knowing when it ever started. The change is often so gradual that our brain thinks it’s normal. One such gradual change is rounding the upper back forward, called kyphosis or hyper kyphosis in medical terms. There are several causes for this common misalignment of the spine. Yoga practices can often correct or at least prevent further rounding forward. This blog about ‘better posture: rounded upper back’ explains the causes of kyphosis, and what you can start doing about it with yoga.
Rounded upper back – Kyphosis
Kyphosis or hyper kyphosis is the medical term for the forward rounding of the upper spine. It can be mild or very severe, and develop in young or older people. Milder forms are usually the result of slouching habits, while severe kyphosis is more likely due to structural changes. One structural change in young people is called Ankylosing Spondylitis and is discussed in this blog: https://beneyoga.co.uk/yoga-for-ankylosing-spondylitis-and-axial-spondyloarthritis/. Severe structural changes in older people are caused by crush fractures due to low bone density, called osteoporosis. The fractures are more likely of course when there is already a rounded upper back present.
Many people sit for long periods, hunched over phone or computer, slouched in comfortable sofas or car seats. This can lead to weaker back muscles, overworked neck muscles, and tight chest muscles. The rounded upper back compresses the front of the body, and thus the lungs, diaphragm and abdomen. This may result in less than optimal breathing, digestion and abdominal strength, and frequently lead to lower back pain. The gradual rounding of the upper back can go unnoticed for a long time. After all, we usually don’t notice how we look from the side, and the brain gradually gets used to the spinal change, recording it as normal.
Apart from our habits, there may also be emotional reasons for someone to adopt a slumped posture, such as shyness, low confidence or grief. These emotional causes, as well as simply being very tall when your peers are not, can all lead to kyphosis and potential problems when getting older. Practising yoga can not only address the spinal changes but also the more subtle, emotional reasons that have led to the poor posture.
The well-meant but wrong advice to improve one’s posture is is to lift the chest and pull the shoulders back. In fact, try doing that now and notice how your back muscles feel: might it possibly give you a painful middle back if you keep this going?
A good standing posture starts with the feet grounded and the weight of the body equally balanced behind all the toes and the centre of the heels. It involves a good alignment of hips over ankles and shoulders over hips. The head and neck should always feel like they are “floating up” towards the sky. A good posture further involves the whole spine and demands both strength and flexibility. That being so, together with strong upper back muscles it is important to have released chest muscles (pectoralis major) so that the shoulders are not pulled forward.
Because we are all individuals with different bodies, we all have slightly different needs. The practices below can help in releasing and strengthening the upper back, but they are generic, and only a beginning. If you would like to receive tailored help with your posture, do contact me by email or set up a free consultation session here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/book-a-free-consultation-call/.
To start with, this blog shows you how to release the chest muscles with a stretch for the pectoral muscles and how to strengthen the upper back with the cobra pose.
Pectoral muscles stretch
Interlace your fingers behind your back and place your hands on your lower back.
Bend the arms, move the elbows closer to each other, and hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths.
If this stretch feels very tight, start by breathing out as you bring the elbows together and breathing in to relax the position. Repeat a number of times before holding the stretch for a few breaths.
Cobra Pose: Bhujangasana
Cobra is often performed in a different way from the photograph below. Very often yoga students put weight on the hands and push the upper body as high as possible while looking up. There are at least 3 problems with doing cobra in this way:
It may increase or create neck tension.
You will underuse the upper back muscles.
The position may hurt the lower back.
This could be fine for flexible students with a pain-free back. Unfortunately, when your lower back feels tight or painful, performing cobra by putting weight on the arms and crunching the lower back is simply not useful.
How to strengthen the upper back with Cobra Pose
Lie on your abdomen with the forehead on the mat and the hands underneath the shoulders.
Place your fingertips in line with the top of the shoulders.
Keep the elbows close to the body and soften the shoulders away from the ears. Stay for quite a few breaths in this position, breathing and allowing the hips and legs to get heavy.
Engage the legs slightly and the lower abdominal muscles. This helps to anchor the lower body on the floor.
Raise the shoulders and head without putting weight on the arms and hands. Feel that your upper back muscles are doing the work, and not the arms or lower back.
Feel as if the upper spine and neck are lengthening forward and up.
Keep looking down and only slightly forward. Think of the back of your neck as long and crown of the head lengthening forward.
This isn’t a big movement; you may feel disappointed that you can’t come up very high. Nevertheless, it’s a very useful exercise if you want to strengthen the upper back and improve your posture.
Make sure that you don’t look up, keep looking down to avoid hyper-extending the neck.
You can inhale with the movement up and exhale down. The lower back should not hurt or feel strained.
After cobra, rest for a few moments in child’s pose. Please don’t do child if you have recently had a herniated disc. The cobra itself may be a relief for sciatica sufferers. However, if you have sciatica, instead of going into child’s pose afterwards, just lie on the abdomen or back.
If your kyphosis is caused by sitting hunched, have a look at this blog about stretches to do at your desk: https://beneyoga.co.uk/eight-ways-to-stretch-at-your-desk-when-you-wfh/.
A passive rest position, lying on a rolled blanket, is discussed in this blog, as well as a passive releasing position, the crocodile rest: https://beneyoga.co.uk/yoga-poses-my-kids-taking-back-to-uni/.